President Bush has read a book. That book is The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, published late last year by Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet refusenik turned conservative Israeli cabinet minister. According to the Washington Post, Bush has since â€œbeen recommending the book to nearly everyone he sees, from friends to journalists to foreign leaders, telling CNN last week that â€˜this is a book that â€¦ summarizes how I feel.â€™â€
I havenâ€™t read Sharanskyâ€™s book, but Iâ€™m intrigued by one of the ideas at its heart, what the author calls the â€œtown square testâ€ for democracy. Condoleezza Rice summed it up in her remarks at last weekâ€™s Senate confirmation hearing:
â€œThe world should really apply what Natan Sharansky called the town square test. If a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment and physical harm, then that person is living in a fear society. And we cannot rest until every person living in a fear society has finally won their freedom.â€
This leads us to the obvious question: does Colombia pass the â€œtown square test?â€
Well, you can probably go into most of Colombiaâ€™s town squares and express your views, as long as they are not considered too pro-guerrilla (or too pro-government, if the town square is in a guerrilla-controlled zone). And you are unlikely to be arrested for what you say, though a member of the Uribe governmentâ€™s informant network could consider your words evidence enough to have you arrested (you will probably be subsequently released for lack of evidence, though the local paramilitaries still might consider your arrest to be evidence enough to target you).
If youâ€™re not a lone individual in a town square, but instead express your views as a member of an association or an author of a publication, your risks are much higher.
- Thirty-three human-rights activists were murdered or disappeared between August 7, 2002 and August 7, 2004, the Colombian Commission of Jurists reports (PDF format).
- Some civil-society organizations critical of current government policies, such as the Permanent Assembly of Civil Society for Peace in downtown BogotÃ¡ (MS Word document), have been repeatedly subject to warrantless searches, threats and intimidation.
- Forty-seven labor-union members, including sixteen leaders, were killed between January and August of 2004, according to Colombiaâ€™s National Labor School (PDF format).
- While none of Colombiaâ€™s self-censoring journalists were killed in 2004, the violence began again this month with the murder of outspoken radio host Julio Palacios in CÃºcuta, Norte de Santander. Death threats forced another CÃºcuta journalist, Antonio Colmenares, to flee the city last weekend.
Speaking out in Colombia is very risky. So risky, in fact, that Colombia cannot be said to pass Sharanskyâ€™s â€œtown square test.â€
Sharansky does seem to offer an exception to his â€œtest.â€ Again, I havenâ€™t read the book, but the Publisherâ€™s Weekly review indicates that the author disagrees with â€œliberals who he says fail to distinguish between flawed democracies that struggle to implement human rights and authoritarian or totalitarian states that flout human rights as a matter of course.â€
Is Colombia, then, a flawed democracy struggling to implement human rights? The best way to measure whether a state is â€œstruggling to implement human rightsâ€ is to determine how assiduously that state seeks to investigate and punish abuses.
Suffice it to say that there has been little or no progress on any of the abuses in the list above. Worse, as indicated in an earlier posting, State Department certification reports indicate a high level of impunity for abuses attributed to the military, with no improvement in recent years. As of September 2004, only 21 enlisted men and 10 officers were under indictment for any human rights-related crimes; of the officers, only two are above the rank of major. Meanwhile, the attorney-generalâ€™s office under Luis Camilo Osorio has come under constant fire from the human-rights community for dismissing effective human rights prosecutors and stalling cases against military officers.
Colombia fails Sharanskyâ€™s test. If the Bush administration is truly to take the â€œtown squareâ€ precept seriously, then, it will have to make some significant adjustments to its policy toward Colombia. The State Department will have to be more forceful in its implementation of the human rights conditions in existing law that require Colombia to show real progress toward curbing impunity for abusers. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rightsâ€™ recommendations for Colombia should move from the periphery to the core of our dealings with Colombia. U.S. policymakers must take a more critical distance from the Uribe regime where human rights are concerned. And those few who dare to speak out in Colombiaâ€™s town squares â€“ the human-rights defenders and peace activists, the peaceful reformers, the labor advocates, the journalists and academics who express unpopular views â€“ deserve the support and accompaniment of the U.S. government.